Penalty kicks are taken from a distance of 12 yards away from the goal, on the penalty mark. When a game ends in a tie—after a supplemental period—such as the Copa America between Argentina and Chile, the game’s winner is decided by those penalty kicks.
Messi failed to make a goal during that game. Because of the short distance between the penalty spot and the net, there is usually very little time for the goalkeeper to react to the shot. The goalkeeper often dives to one side where he predicts the ball will go and, if he is lucky, he may be able to stop the shot. Messi’s decision to shoot high, in the space vacated by the goalkeeper’s dive, sent the ball above the bar.
Almost every soccer player has failed to convert goals from that mark, even the great ones, since there is an element of considerable luck in it. It happened to Ronaldo, Zico, Raul, David Beckham, Roberto Baggio, and Arjen Robben, among many others. However, Messi’s missing shot left most fans dumbfounded. Nobody, however, was more shocked than Messi. He lifted his jersey to cover his face, not wanting to believe what had just happened. Afterwards, he walked around in a daze.
As soon as the match was over he announced his retirement from international soccer saying, “It’s not meant for me. For me the national team is over. I’ve done all I can, it hurts not to be a champion.”
Luck is an important component in any sport, and to define a game by penalty shots is the worst—but perhaps also the only—way to define a game that ends in a tie. Unluckily for Messi, his failure to convert his penalty kick led his team to defeat, and to his decision to leave Argentina’s national team, where he recently had become its top scorer.
Messi’s decision caused considerable anguish among Argentines who, from all walks of life—including Mauricio Macri, the president of the country—begged him to continue on the national team. “To have Messi among us is a blessing, it is God’s gift to Argentina,” said Macri.
A primary school teacher wrote him a public letter asking him to reconsider leaving Argentina’s national saying, “Please don’t renounce, don’t make people believe that it is only important to be first….I tell my students about the Messi who can miss a penalty kick because we can all make mistakes, and not even Messi is a perfect man.”
In addition to the challenging technical aspects of kicking a ball, one cannot ignore the tremendous psychological pressure Messi must undergo as the best soccer player in the world who is unable to win an important tournament for Argentina. I don’t believe anybody today has more adulation and at the same time more demands that those placed on Messi.
It is that fear of failing at a critical juncture that may have had an important influence on Messi’s failed shot. We place demands on him that we wouldn’t place even on ourselves. I have said before that Messi is an extraterrestrial. And I maintain my position. He is an extraterrestrial as a player, but he is also a human being plagued by the same burdens and anxieties as all of us.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is a soccer fan.